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Twilight of an Idol: College, Purpose, and Zombies

In “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” William Deresiewicz lambasts a pitiful American elite education system that “manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” The entire system of elite education, he argues, reproduces an American upper-middle class and its distorted values, aspirations, and entitlement. Stanford and Swarthmore “are turning our kids into zombies.”

With his recent article in the New Republic and his forthcoming book (Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, Free Press), Deresiewicz is one of a growing number of pundits lamenting the loss of an American institution: college. “Is the only purpose of an education,” sneers Deresiewicz, “to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?”

Andrew Delbanco recently asked the same question in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. So, too, did Mark Edmundson in Why Teach? As journalists, business professors, and university trustees chant “disruption,” college professors and and their public-intellectual kin seem intent on defending their institutions and vocations with appeals to a collegiate ideal. In response to declining state support for higher education and increasing skepticism about the economic value of higher education among sections of the public, college is making a return. But what are Deresiewicz, Delblanco, Edmundson, not to mention countless faculty committees who are busy reimagining undergraduate education, talking about when they conjure up the “college experience”?

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Princeton University’s Firestone Library and statue of John Witherspoon, sixth president and signer of the Declaration of Independence; Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

They are, I think, mostly talking about self-transformation. College may teach you how to think and even give you some skills, but ultimately, as Deresiewicz puts it, college helps you build a self. College is a four-year respite, before an impending life of professionalism, for self-discovery. “Students are pressured and programmed, trained to live from task to task, relentlessly rehearsed and tested until winners are culled from the rest,” writes Delbanco, and so they scarcely have time to practice the art of being in college, the art of “loafing.” Citing Walt Whitman, Delbanco describes college as a time when “I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Similarly, Mark Edumundson writes of college as a “mythic force,” a “rite of passage.” In Why Teach?, Edmundson sees college, the English major, and teaching as opportunites for self-transformation and “soul making.”  And this is an experience that Edmundson, Delbanco, and Deresiewicz want to democratize and make available to as many students as possible.

But University of Chicago undergraduate and Slate intern Osita Nwanevu isn’t buying it. In a response to Deresiewicz’s article, Nwanevu dismisses the entire notion that college is a singular opportunity for self-discovery.

Every ambitious student who believes that college is their opportunity to shape themselves will do whatever it takes to get into the very best, most exclusive school they can. When their experiences underwhelm, as many necessarily will, they will indeed leave college ‘anxious, timid, and lost,’ believing that they’ve missed out on a chance at intellectual development. Deresiewicz has simply traded careerism for another exalted goal, with similar results. [. . .] To believe that a college—Ivy or otherwise—can confer intellectual benefits in four years that you won’t be able to attain at some point over the course of the next 60 is to believe in magic.

What’s so special about four years of college? How did college come to be the defining experience of the American upper middle class? How did Harvard and Amherst, not to mention the liberal arts degree in English, come by their monopoly on an authentic self? Did Walt Whitman even go to college?

After the recent spate of books, articles, and faculty reports extolling and idealizing the transformative potential of a college experience, Nwanevu’s incredulity is refreshing. College has come to bear an impossible burden, both individually and socially. Its most confident advocates treat it like a stand-alone ethical resource, capable of funding and guiding the self-transformations of America’s elite. Deresiewicz laments contemporary college students’ lack of desire to do good or find the “higher meaning” of college buzzwords like leadership or service. And faculty, he claims, don’t have time for such meaningful pursuits; they’ve got research to do.

Deresiewicz is ultimately concerned about the ethical failures of American colleges. But he never mentions the particular ethical resources or traditions that make such self-transformation possible. And he never considers whether a transformation of the self is sufficient. Can such a collegiate celebration of the self resist the fragmenting and stultifying effects of the upper-middle-class American culture he decries—its consumerism, its anti-democratic tendencies, its solipsism? For Deresiewicz, college is less an institution devoted to a common end than it is a self-help retreat, replete with poetry classes and career services.

This is a common problem for the recent defenders of college. They invoke a collegiate ideal without considering the normative and ethical resources to which it used to be tied or the larger social ends that such an education was intended to serve. Perhaps inadvertently, Deresiewicz acknowledges this in a line of candor:  “Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools, that no one has ever heard of on coasts—often do a much better job” transforming selves. Until the end of the nineteenth century, American colleges such as Princeton, Yale, and Harvard continued to train Protestant clergy. They were explicitly religious institutions organized around particular ethical traditions. As those and many other former colleges became universities at the end of the nineteenth century, however, these once-explicitly Christian institutions became generally nonsectarian Christian institutions devoted to broad, often vague public goods such as freedom, democracy, and economic and technological progress. The university, as University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper put it in 1899, was the “prophet” and “priest” of democracy, the keeper “of holy mysteries, of sacred and significant traditions.”

In the Harvard Report of 1945, General Education in a Free Society, some of the most respected scholars in the country acknowledged that American education was in “supreme need . . . of a unifying purpose and idea.” But religion wasn’t a possibility. “Given the American scene with its varieties of faith and even of unfaith,” Harvard faculty considered an explicitly religious basis for the undergraduate curriculum impossible.

Not much has changed since 1945. There is, thankfully, no going back to the nineteenth-century Protestant college of Christian gentlemen. And that leaves contemporary colleges, as we might conclude from Deresiewicz’s jeremiad, still rummaging about for sources of meaning and ethical self-transformation. Some invoke democratic citizenship, critical thinking, literature, and, most recently, habits of mind. But only half-heartedly—and mostly in fundraising emails.

At best, a college education today might alert students to an awareness of what is missing, not only in their own colleges but in themselves and the larger society as well.

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